A new coalition of Jewish academics has rejected the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which members say stifles academic freedom. According to the Jewish Faculty Network (JFN), the definition has been used to “intimidate and silence the work of unions, student groups, academic departments and faculty associations that are committed to freedom, equality and justice for Palestinians.”
The JFN was launched last week in a news conference co-hosted by University of Toronto geographer Deborah Cowen and University of Alberta linguist Robert Kirchner. Cowen spoke of the “shared commitment to social justice and academic freedom” uniting JFN members. “This entails respecting a diversity of Jewish voices, as well as the views of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim faculty and students.”
A statement on the coalition website listed the reasons for its opposition to the IHRA definition. “We add our voices to a growing international movement of Jewish scholars to insist that university policies to combat anti-Semitism are not used to stifle legitimate criticisms of the Israeli state, or the right to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. We recognise that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a legitimate, non-violent form of protest.”
The coalition acknowledged that not all of its members endorse the BDS movement. Nevertheless, it noted, they oppose the equating of support for BDS with anti-Semitism. It also expressed concern over the lobbying on Canadian campuses for the adoption of the IHRA definition.
Several academic institutions have expressed similar concerns about the controversial definition. The New Israel Fund of Canada, for example, recently retracted its support for the IHRA definition. University College London (UCL), meanwhile, has seen its Academic Board advise the university to seek an alternative definition of anti-Semitism and reverse its adoption of the IHRA model.
“The UCL Academic Board joins a growing chorus of voices,” the JFN pointed out, “including over 500 Canadian academics and multiple statements by Jewish and Israeli academics, British academics who are Israeli citizens, and specialists in Jewish and Holocaust history, opposing the adoption of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism.”
In conclusion, the Jewish Faculty Network said: “Adopting a seriously flawed framework to confront anti-Semitism is antithetical to the broader pursuit of justice and tolerance at the core of the mission statement of many universities. Freedom to criticise the policies and practices of any state without exception, including the State of Israel, is central to accountable scholarship, learning and education. We believe it is also central to building a more just academy.”